Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again

Although I’ve confessed to being generally wary of sequels, and I am scrupulously avoiding this autumn’s other high-profile sequel (you know the one!), I loved Olive Kitteridge enough to continue straight on to Elizabeth Strout’s sequel, Olive, Again, which I thought even better.

 

Olive Kitteridge (2008)

I have a soft spot for literature’s curmudgeons – the real-life ones like J. R. Ackerley, Shaun Bythell and Geoff Dyer as well as the fictional protagonists like Dr. James Darke in Rick Gekoski’s debut novel, Cassandra Darke in Posy Simmonds’s graphic novel, Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel, Hendrik Groen in his two titular Dutch diaries, and Frederick Lothian in Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions. So it’s no surprise that I warmed immediately to Olive Kitteridge, a grumpy retired math teacher in Crosby, Maine. She’s seen and heard it all, and will bluntly say just what she thinks. She has no time for anyone else’s nonsense.

I love our first introduction to her, three pages into the opening piece of this linked short story collection: she dismisses her pharmacist husband Henry’s new employee as “mousy,” and when Henry suggests inviting the girl and her husband over for dinner, snaps, Bartleby-like, “Not keen on it.” The great sadness of Olive’s life is the death of a fellow teacher she never quite had an affair with, but loved in her early forties. The great failure of Olive’s life is not connecting with her only son, Christopher, a podiatrist who marries a woman Olive dislikes and moves to California, then remarries a single mother of two and settles in New York City.

I started this in February and didn’t finish it until this month. I lost momentum after “A Different Road,” in which Olive and Henry are in a hostage situation in the local hospital. This was a darker turn than I was prepared for from Strout – I thought unrequited love and seasonal melancholy was as bleak as she’d go. But I hadn’t read “Tulips” yet, in which we learn that a local boy is in prison for stabbing a woman 29 times.

My least favorite stories were the ones that are about other locals and only mention Olive in passing, perhaps via advice she once gave a student. It almost feels like Strout wrote these as stand-alone stories and then, at her publisher’s behest, inserted a sentence or two so they could fit into a book about Olive. I much prefer the stories that are all about Olive, whether she’s engaging in a small act of rebellion on her son’s wedding day, visiting his new family in New York, or entertaining the prospect of romance some time after Henry’s death.

Olive is a sort of Everywoman; in her loneliness, frustrated desire and occasional depression she’s like us all. I wrote an article on linked short story collections some months ago and pretty much everyone I consulted mentioned Olive as the epitome. I didn’t love the book quite as much as I expected to, but I was very glad to have read it. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

[Apropos of nothing: this book contains the worst possible nickname for my name that I’ve ever encountered: Bicka-Beck.]

My rating:

 

Olive, Again (2019)

(Coming from Random House [USA] on October 15th and Viking [UK] on October 31st)

I liked this that little bit more than Olive Kitteridge for a number of reasons:

1) I read it over a matter of days rather than months, so the characters and happenings stayed fresher in my mind and I experienced it more as a novel-in-stories than as a set of discrete stories.

2) Olive, our Everywoman protagonist, approaches widowhood, decrepitude and death with her usual mixture of stoicism and bad temper. You may hear more about her bowels than you’d like to, but at least Strout is being realistic about the indignities of ageing.

3) Crucially, Olive has started, very late in life, to take a genuine interest in other people, such as her son’s second wife; a local girl who becomes Poet Laureate; and the carers who look after her following a heart attack. “Tell me what it’s like to be you,” she says one day to the Somali nurse who comes over from Shirley Falls. Comparing others’ lives with her own, she realizes she’s been lucky in many ways. Yet that doesn’t make understanding herself, or preparing for death, any easier.

4) There are connections to other Strout novels that made me intrigued to read further in her work. In “Exiles,” Bob and Jim Burgess of The Burgess Boys are reunited in Maine, while in the final story, “Friend,” Olive befriends a new fellow nursing home resident, Isabelle Daignault of Amy and Isabelle.

5) Olive delivers a baby!

As with the previous volume, I most liked the stories that stuck close to Olive, and least liked those that are primarily about others in Crosby or Shirley Falls and only mention Olive in passing, such as via a piece of advice she gave to one of her math students several decades ago. Twice Strout goes sexually explicit – a voyeurism situation, and a minor character who is a dominatrix; I felt these touches were unnecessary. Overall, though, these stories are of very high quality. The two best ones, worth seeking out whether you think you want to read the whole book or not, are “The Poet” and “Heart.”

My rating:

I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley.

 

Are you a fan of Elizabeth Strout’s work? Do you plan to read Olive, Again?

28 thoughts on “Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again

  1. Bicka-Beck? Crikey!! I have never quite fancied these enough to read them and I don’t think I now want to – and you’ve done me a service there, so thank you. Things in life have been a bit off-balance lately with pet sadness, and I have dealt with that by clicking on book orders, so another two to NOT buy is a good thing!

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    1. I think you generally like American small-town tales, BUT Strout’s books perhaps go darker than appearances would suggest. There were a couple of moments that did shake me, and there’s a lingering overall sense of melancholy despite some funny moments from Olive’s sharp tongue.

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  2. Elizabeth Strout still hasn’t quite clicked with me – I’ve read Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton and didn’t see anything in either to make them stand out from similar books, although both were well-written and well-observed. I’m willing to accept that I just haven’t read the right Strout yet, though!

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    1. I’d read My Name is Lucy Barton before these two and enjoyed it, but not enough to read its sequel. So I guess Olive clicked better for me. Strout seems to keep returning to similar characters, themes and places. Amy and Isabelle might be different enough to engage you (from what I’ve gathered from the story here that features Isabelle, and reading the blurb), and I’m also interested in Abide with Me, which sounds a bit like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (it features a preacher, anyway). But of course there’s no compulsion to keep trying more Strout if she doesn’t appeal!

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  3. Yes, I’ll read it. Didn’t know it was coming. Thanks for the heads up. Have you seen the movie version of the first? Frances McDermott (is that her last name? sorry) does a wonderful portrayal of Olive.

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  4. As others have said, I enjoyed Olive (her waspishness is sometimes understandable, and she has a complex nature that belies her abrupt manner) and L Barton. I don’t know if you’ve read the two novels by Evan S Connell, Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge, that do some similar things rather better, to my mind, especially the first one. But I shall certainly put this sequel on my list.

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  5. I loved OLIVE and MY NAME, the only two I’ve read of hers, so far. And I do think I’ll pick up OLIVE, AGAIN. I like her work as a reader and as a writer. Strout breaks every rule of fiction writing I learned in my MFA. I laugh when I think about pitching a book, like “it’s about a crabby old lady in a boring old town” or “it’s about a mother and daughter in a hospital room.” The power of Strout is that she doesn’t even need typical plot conventions to get at so much tension and charge. It’s inspiring writing.

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  6. I love Olive. Marcie and I just watched the mini-series based on the book and I loved that, too. This is the first review of “Olive, Again” I’ve seen (not that I’ve been on the internet much lately), and I’m happy to see you liked it even more!

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  7. I really like Strout’s work. I’ve read Olive, of course, as well as Amy and Isabelle (which I thought was excellent), the Burgess Boys, and an audio version of Lucy Barton (which I did not like at all, and I’m not sure if it was the book or the audio.) ANYWAY – when I saw Olive, Again at Netgalley, I snapped up a copy but am planning to read and publish a review in October, closer to the publication date. I am definitely looking forward to it!

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    1. I think you’ll love it. I don’t often read in advance of publication dates, even though I get lots of NetGalley downloads, but this was one time I made an exception. (Of course there have been lots of reviews on Goodreads for months.)

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